Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Shirky vs. Gladwell

Those of you who followed Priscilia's link on the Facebook group last week to a New Yorker article written in October 2010 by UofT alum Malcolm Gladwell ("Small Change: Why the Revolution Will not be tweeted") may be interested in finding out a little more about his thoughts post-Arab Spring, as well as delving a little deeper into how/where Gladwell and Shirky's arguments diverge on the issue of  SNS as a tool for political activism. You'll notice that Gladwell both critiques Shirky's book and provides an alternative theory about why the demonstrations in East Germany attracted so many participants. I'll talk a bit more about Gladwell's arguments tomorrow, but in the meantime, you can read ahead by checking out this exchange between Gladwell and Shirky, published in Foreign Affairs magazine last year. The exchange occurred in response to an article Shirky wrote for an earlier issue of the same publication, entitled The Political Power of Social Media (log in through UofT Library site for full access), wherein Shirky provides an updated version of the argument he makes in Here Comes Everybody, and responds to some of his critics - including the ones outlined in Gladwell's "Small Change" article. Shirky describes:
"There are, broadly speaking, two arguments against the idea that social media will make a difference in national politics. The first is that the tools are themselves ineffective, and the second is that they produce as much harm to democratization as good, because repressive governments are becoming better at using these tools to suppress dissent. The critique of ineffectiveness, most recently offered by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, concentrates on examples of what has been termed "slacktivism," whereby casual participants seek social change through low-cost activities, such as joining Facebook's "Save Darfur" group, that are long on bumper-sticker sentiment and short on any useful action. The critique is correct but not central to the question of social media's power; the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively. Recent protest movements--including a movement against fundamentalist vigilantes in India in 2009, the beef protests in South Korea in 2008, and protests against education laws in Chile in 2006--have used social media not as a replacement for real-world action but as a way to coordinate it."
In terms of the second critique, which was eloquently articulated by Evgeny Morozov in this RSA video that was posted to the FB group by Anna, Shirky has this to say:
"This obviously does not mean that every political movement that uses these tools will succeed, because the state has not lost the power to react. This points to the second, and much more serious, critique of social media as tools for political improvement--namely, that the state is gaining increasingly sophisticated means of monitoring, interdicting, or co-opting these tools. The use of social media, the scholars Rebecca MacKinnon of the New America Foundation and Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute have argued, is just as likely to strengthen authoritarian regimes as it is to weaken them." 
So - back to the Gladwell v. Shirky exchange. This is what Gladwell had to say about Shirky's THe Political Power of Social Media article:
"...[J]ust because innovations in communications technology happen does not mean that they matter; or, to put it another way, in order for an innovation to make a real difference, it has to solve a problem that was actually a problem in the first place. This is the question that I kept wondering about throughout Shirky's essay-and that had motivated my New Yorker article on social media, to which Shirky refers: What evidence is there that social revolutions in the pre-Internet era suffered from a lack of cutting-edge communications and organizational tools? In other words, did social media solve a problem that actually needed solving? Shirky does a good job of showing how some recent protests have used the tools of social media. But for his argument to be anything close to persuasive, he has to convince readers that in the absence of social media, those uprisings would not have been possible."
To which Shirky responds:
"I would break Gladwell's question of whether social media solved a problem that actually needed solving into two parts: Do social media allow insurgents to adopt new strategies? And have those strategies ever been crucial? Here, the historical record of the last decade is unambiguous: yes, and yes.
Digital networks have acted as a massive positive supply shock to the cost and spread of information, to the ease and range of public speech by citizens, and to the speed and scale of group coordination. As Gladwell has noted elsewhere, these changes do not allow otherwise uncommitted groups to take effective political action. They do, however, allow committed groups to play by new rules."
Anyway - there's more to it, so please do check it out for yourselves.